For almost all of my youth, almost all of the strong, ambitious and driven women I knew were fictional. They were all I had access to, through books, movies and television shows, and they were not only fictional, but usually science fictional or similarly fantastical. Princess Leia, Captain Janeway, Batgirl. I learned a lot about extraordinary strength and courage, flying spaceships and fighting crime—but not so much about how to navigate the normal, often depressing human systems I was up against every day in the real world.
Leslie Knope, public servant of Pawnee, Indiana, is fictional, and I encountered her when I was no longer strictly young. But she is precisely the heroine, the right combination of fictionalized success and real-world challenges, that grown-up girls learning how to make ambition reality could use as an example.
Because there is a truth that all ambitious girls will have to learn at some point, and that is that changing the world is really, really difficult. And even more difficult than that is continuing to change the world, or even continuing to try, over the course of years. Holding on to enthusiasm and belief and conviction in the face of an existing system that prefers the path of least resistance is such hard work that it grinds down and defeats most people who attempt it. It’s not their fault. It’s just hard.
We could do a lot worse than to turn to our media for examples like Leslie Knope. She’s hardly perfect, which is all the more reason to embrace her. She gets frustrated, makes mistakes, steamrolls where she should tread lightly. She gets defeated. She holds grudges. Her work goes unappreciated. But she’s also loyal, determined, supportive, giving and never puts anything less than her whole self into what she does. It’s rare to see a woman made so independent by the sheer force of her personality. She’s one of those people who can’t be denied. Not in the sense of anything specific she asks for (although sometimes in that, too), but in the sense that she is entirely alive. Even when she’s fictional. She is one of those people whose mere existence sustains and inspires others. Even when the others are not fictional.
Leslie’s story wrapped up this past week after seven seasons of episodes of Parks and Recreation, and predicted her reaching even greater heights. But the moment I think about the most when I think about Leslie Knope is the one at the end of an episode in middle of the second season. To avoid the fuss around a fabricated scandal, her boss, Ron, gives her the day off. But she does so much on a daily basis that the office basically comes to a standstill when she’s gone. When she returns, Ron happily dumps a pile of work in her arms. She smiles and takes it into her office. The snow falls outside her window as she opens up a folder and picks up the phone. I don’t love the image of Leslie being president as much as I love the image of her quietly, in the soft winter, doing the work she believes in doing, that only she can do, without immediate fanfare, reward or victory. Because she’s Leslie Knope and that’s what she does. And, honestly, what better kind of a heroine could we have.